Poway triplet aims to forge bonds
Teen who has autistic siblings works with special-needs kids
POWAY — Tyler Chan was born a triplet, but for all of his 17 years, the Poway High senior said he’s felt like an only child.
Tyler’s siblings, Ethan and Savannah, were born with autism and the invisible tether that usually binds birth-mates was broken from the very beginning.
“I didn’t know how to play with them and they didn’t want much to do with me. They were always off in their own… worlds,” he said.
But that has never stopped Tyler from trying to find a connection with his siblings and other children with special needs. Today, he’s president of a school club that promotes interaction between general and special education students, and this past Saturday he launched a chapter of ACEing Autism, an eight-week Saturday morning tennis camp for youths with autism at Poway’s Stoneridge Country Club.
Margot Morpeth, a special education instructional aide for the Poway Unified School District, said she’s known Tyler for many years and has always been impressed with his tireless efforts to forge a bond with disabled students. He volunteered for years at Morpeth’s special needs basketball program and she has watched him in action with disabled students at Poway High.
“He comes in no matter what and has lunch with the kids and is very good with them all,” said Morpeth, whose 22-year-old son, Max, is developmentally disabled. “There’s one girl who is in bed part of the day and doesn’t talk or respond, but he goes in and talks to her and reads to her. He’s just a sweetie and always has been.”
Wayne Chan said he and his wife, Maya Hu-Chan, realized early on that Ethan and Savannah were autistic, but it was very hard watching Tyler repeatedly try and fail to interact with them and not understand why.
“As a little boy he would try to play with them and they really didn’t respond,” Wayne said.
But rather than just give up on his siblings, Tyler grew determined to find a link with them, Wayne said. Tyler encouraged his parents to buy Ethan a pogo stick because he thought it would help his brother’s coordination, and it did. He taught his siblings to play basketball, brought them along to his tennis lessons and led them on short bike rides.
“He tries to engage them, instigate and challenge them in ways that are surprising sometimes,” Wayne said. “I was filled with pride to see my son has so much empathy for special-needs kids. He relates to them and welcomes them and embraces them in a way most people won’t get.”
Tyler said it wasn’t always easy. He was often lonely and was jealous of friends who could talk about playing, and even fighting, with their siblings. Although he couldn’t talk with Ethan and Savannah, he became determined to help them excel in nonverbal ways. He found a website where Ethan could use his focus and memory skills to assemble 120-piece puzzles in minutes and he encouraged Savannah’s love for music and her lightning-fast organizational skills.
“Ethan is amazing at puzzles and Savannah is so incredibly efficient that when she catches on to something she can do it faster than I ever could,” Tyler said.
Wayne said it was when Tyler was in middle school that his empathy for his siblings expanded to others after he stopped another student from bullying a child with special needs. After he moved to Poway High three years ago, Tyler joined the Best Pals club, which encourages students to share lunch and activities with those in special ed. This year, he’s the club’s president.
“It’s very important for these students to socialize with people outside their classroom. It makes them feel like they have more friends,” Tyler said.
Tyler started playing tennis seven years ago and is now a member of Poway High’s varsity team. He introduced the sport to Ethan and Savannah a few years back and this fall decided to expand that circle through ACEing Autism. The organization, with 40 chapters nationwide, offers low-cost, eight-week camps to children with autism. Volunteers provide one-on-one instruction in basic tennis skills ranging from rolling and catching the balls with their hands to hitting balls with a racket.
The camp, which takes place at 9 a.m. Saturdays through Oct. 31, drew 11 participants and 15 volunteers to its first session. Tyler said he was overjoyed with how well it went but said there’s still room for more participants and volunteers, who are required to register online.
Among the participants at the boisterous first session Saturday were Ethan and Savannah, as well as one teenage girl who was so agitated by the new situation that she refused to get out of her mother’s car for the entire hour. Wayne said that when Tyler found out about the girl after camp, he spent 20 minutes sitting with her in the car explaining in detail what happened during the first session and encouraging her to come again this Saturday.
Morpeth, who also attended Saturday’s session to watch, said she wasn’t surprised to see how well Tyler ran the program.
“It was very heartwarming,” she said. “It was well-organized and there were plenty of volunteers and he was right there in the center of it. He was very enthusiastic and very patient and was so great with all the kids.”
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